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Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: Pushing Pause To Think About This


FRISCO, Texas – Let me provide some reasonable food for thought. Very little seasoning added.

Keep hearing how the Cowboys, after a one-year reign, are no longer the Beasts In The East. That they've lost this and they've lost that.

That the Eagles and the Giants and the Commanders (still not comfortable typing that) have added so much that at least one of them will make sure the Cowboys don't become the first NFC East team to repeat as division champs since Philadelphia won four straight titles from 2001-04.

You know, because the Cowboys lost Amari Cooper and Randy Gregory and, OK, let's throw in Connor Williams and Cedrick Wilson, too, but of their own volition. My gosh, they traded away Cooper for peanuts. Well, essentially for the sixth-round draft choice notching them linebacker Devin Harper with the 193rd pick this year. At best, they can merely hope Harper makes the team.

OK, get that.

Hated to lose those four guys. But there is a cap. Can't keep 'em all. Have to pick and choose. And the Cowboys have picked Dak and Zeke and Zack and Tank and Tyron and Gallup and Dalton. Especially Dak.

And for starters, that's what separates the Cowboys from the rest of the NFC East. The quarterback. Them others at quarterback, they are hoping at this point. Plus, let's remember that while going 6-0 against the division in 2021 the Cowboys outscored those three opponents by a combined score of 240-107. The closest encounter was the 27-20 victory over Washington, though leading 27-8 with less than six minutes to play before the newly minted Commanders scored two touchdowns, one on an interception return.

Yes, seemingly through the draft and free agency those teams did get better. But, hey, there's a huge gap to close.

OK, granted the Cowboys haven't improved offensively … yet. As has been pointed out, we have questions. Like can CeeDee Lamb carry the No. 1 receiver mantle? Will James Washington and rookie Jalen Tolbert be able to hold down the receiver fort until Michael Gallup returns? And can Tyler Smith or Connor McGovern amply replace Williams at guard?

All TBD.

But here are a few points most are overlooking. Dak Prescott is not rehabbing from that season-ending surgery as he was last offseason, and by the way, he was pretty darn good despite that. Ezekiel Elliott's sprained knee (posterior cruciate ligament) is fine and looks mighty fine running in these pad-less workouts.

"Took me a month or two to get to feeling 100 percent," Zeke said from Thursday's OTA workout of recovering from the knee injury sustained in Week 4. "I feel at this point in the offseason I'm feeling good and ready to go."

And for all the guys heading into no more than their third seasons, how about this being their first full offseason of work, the previous two diminished or totally wiped out by COVID and then COVID precautions, and that goes for Lamb, Tyler Biadasz, Sean McKeon and Simi Fehoko, too.

"This is the first normal year," head coach Mike McCarthy says, "and does feel good to see the progress we've made.

"We're clearly ahead of where we were last year."


All that's fine and good, yet hold on a minute. Potentially what's coming next is where the Cowboys might grow – need to grow – the most yet is generally being overlooked:


Oh yeah, the Cowboys defense improved last year. But then after the disastrous 2020 season of 6-10, they couldn't have been any worse than giving up the most single-season points in franchise history (473) and second-most rushing yards (2,541).

So better is relative since they jumped from 23rd overall defensively in 2020 to last year's 19th, as well as 16th against the run while giving up 115 fewer points (358) even playing one more game. That comes to giving up an average of 21 points a game compared to the nearly 30 of 2020. And then most importantly to last year's 12-5, NFC East-winning success, the Cowboys led the league with 34 takeaways.

But you know what? Still not good enough. Not nearly an accomplished bunch, the Cowboys winning just three games when scoring less than 27 points and losing two when scoring 29 and 33 points.

Leave it to veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to point this out, saying, "Being able to have a defense that you're familiar with, it makes us, you know, the bond more connected. For us to come in here and understand each other's jobs and positions makes our job a little easier.

"We're not starting at the bottom again."

His point: They aren't starting over.

This is the first time in five years the guy running the defense will be the same in consecutive seasons. Remember, the Cowboys had gone from Rod Marinelli to Kris Richard calling the defense to Mike Nolan to Dan Quinn from 2018-2021.

That should be an unsung plus.

Then there is Lawrence himself. As he also points out, this is his first normal offseason, saying, "The last five offseasons I've been recovering," and he means from a lingering injury, usually his back, or offseason surgeries. And when most seem to point out his potential decline, offering up his three sacks last year, they fail to point out Lawrence only played seven games in 2021, suffering that fractured fifth metatarsal in the season opener.

Another defensive plus.

Then, too, last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, who led the team with 13 sacks alternating between linebacker and defensive end, no longer is a rookie. Plus No. 3.

"Micah just has to put his head down and work and forget last year," the second-year player says. "I'm not even thinking about last year. I'm not thinking about what I did before. I'm just thinking about how I can be dominant this year."

As they used to say back in the day, "right on."

Then we see a healthy Neville Gallimore back out there. Folks forget the starting defensive tackle missed the first 12 games of last season recovering from a dislocated left elbow suffered in the Arizona preseason game. Another addition.

Next, so much was made last year when the Cowboys signed former Colts' first-round draft choice Malik Hooker in free agency. But there was a catch. He was available because the Colts shied away from re-signing the veteran free agent after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in Game 2 of the 2020 season.

Yeah, Hooker played in 15 of 17 games last year, but not until toward the last month of the season did the Hooker the Cowboys hoped to be getting show up. Let me tell you, recovering from a torn Achilles is no joke. He will be more than two years removed from the torn Achilles and already is showing significant improvement from last season.

Take Leighton Vander Esch. He returns highly motivated on a one-year, prove-it deal. But he's healthy. Spent the 2020 offseason recovering from vertebrae fusion neck surgery, then immediately fractures his collarbone in the season opener. And while he did start 16 of the 17 games he played last year, the inside linebacker also seemed to improve as the season went along, further distancing himself from the neck surgery.

Remember this, too. Defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa, forced to start 12 of the 16 games he played last year, no longer is a rookie. Maybe a second-year leap? Last year's rookie linebacker Jabril Cox at some point late summer or early season will return from his torn ACL, so another potential addition since he only played nine defensive snaps last year before landing on IR.

And like those others, this will be the NFL's 2021 interception leader Trevon Diggs' first real offseason preparation as well heading into his third season.

Plus, there could be two huge X-factors on this defense: The addition of Sam Williams and Dante Fowler Jr. at defensive end. Maybe the second-round pick along with the eighth-year veteran who did have a career-high 11.5 sacks as recently as 2019 playing for the Rams can make up for the departure of Gregory's six sacks and somewhat for the pressure threat he posed this past season to opposing quarterbacks.

So before we start writing off the Cowboys in 2022, let's at least see what they look like in that first padded practice in training camp, which doesn't really occur until around the first of August, or if not the first minicamp practice.

But then again, in this day and age, we usually can't wait for the facts to play out. We tend to get ahead of ourselves, jerking our knees. That's what we do.

Except when it comes to solving difficult issues.

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